Words Ain’t Worth No More Than Worn Out Tires
By Colin Herd.
All Men are Liars, Alberto Manguel, translated by Miranda France, Alma Books 2010
My brother was the sort of child that people called a “pretty smart kid”. The sort who noticed when a party-magician tucked something up his sleeve, and then took great pleasure in revealing him for a fraud. Without wanting to sound like the beginning of an episode of The Famous Five, he used to torment me – his younger, sluggish, more dim-witted sibling – with riddles, tricks, jokes, whoopee cushions and such like. One of his repertoire that always had me scratching my head was this: “If I tell you that everything I say is a lie, is that statement the truth or a lie?” I don’t think it took me very long to learn that the only answer to a paradox put like that is to say “shut up” and run away, but I’ll admit to taking a bit of pleasure in the process too. There’s something excruciatingly enjoyable about letting someone play with your mind as though it were a toy, bending it one way, then the other, until it slinkies down the stairs. I was reminded of this sensation when reading the latest novel by the celebrated Canadian Argentine-born writer and confirmed bibliophile Alberto Manguel, with its provocatively riddle-like title, All Men are Liars. Released in 2008 in Spanish, it has recently been published by Alma Books in an English translation by Miranda France.
Manguel is best known for his meditative, almost obsessive non-fiction works about the philosophical, imaginative and emotional significance of books, libraries and reading, including The Library at Night, A Reader on Reading and, with Gianni Guadalupi, The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, which is like a Baedeker to fantasy destinations from classic novels, such as Narnia, Utopia, Oz et cetera. Perhaps it won’t come as too much of a shock then when I tell you that All Men are Liars is also a book about books. It’s about reading and writing books, about reading and writing ‘characters’ and about truth and fiction more generally. Whereas the earlier non-fiction books are imaginative, playful and novelistic collections of essays, All Men are Liars is an essayistic novel, a novel with a thesis, albeit an unstable, paradoxical one (the red herring of the title, for a start), like a crazy spinning top.
In a sense, All Men are Liars is a mystery novel about the disappearance of a writer named Alejandro Bevilacqua. Just as his debut novel, with the familiar-seeming title ‘In Praise of Lying’, has been released to great acclaim, Bevilacqua is found dead underneath the balcony of the house of his friend Alberto Manguel and, many years later, a journalist named Terradillos is trying to report the truth of the mysterious death. Each chapter is a different version of the events (and Bevilacqua’s character) from someone involved, including an ultra-literary and intellectually pompous pseudo-Manguel in the long first chapter, Bevilacqua’s lover, a former prison cell-mate and a literary rival. Various machinations of the plot are possible and the reader is torn between a narrative thrust that seems to promise to untangle the divergent accounts, and a subtext that is present throughout telling the reader that no one summative account could be truer than a mess of contradictory truths and lies from different points of view. Indeed, if we take the title on its own terms, we might assume that the only person telling the truth is the sole female narrator, Andrea, Bevilacqua’s last lover. Andrea, by the way, is the narrator that follows Alberto Manguel’s account, and she begins it memorably by saying:
Alberto Manguel is an asshole. Whatever he told you about Alejandro, I’ll bet my right arm it’s wrong, Terradillos. Manguel is one of those types who see an orange and then swear it’s an egg. “What, and orange-coloured?” you say. Yes. “And round?” Yes. “Does it smell of blossom?” Yes. “So like an orange?” Yes, but it’s definitely an egg.
But the title is misleading. It’s a riddle, like my brother’s. In one sense it proves it’s own logic: it’s a lie itself, a borrowed, overheard pop-lyric (Nick Lowe), too generalised to be true. But on the other hand, it has a certain truth about it because the truth is so intangible and ungraspable that any one utterance of it is an untruth. Truth is in the accumulation of contradictions, lies and paradoxes. It’s not that ‘all men are liars’, it’s more complex than that: some people are liars and some aren’t, but something can be true for one person, and false for another without either of them necessarily lying. In the last chapter, Terradillos puts his journalistic instincts in the can and comes to conclusions like those just expressed:
I don’t know whether Bevilacqua himself would have recognized, in that series of biographical versions, which one was his, the real one. How can one know, among all the various faces reflected back to us by mirrors, which one represents us most faithfully and which one deceives us? From our tiny point in the world, how can we observe ourselves without false perceptions? How can we distinguish reality from desire?
All of which (perfectly ‘true’) speculation may or may not induce the same sort of pragmatic knee-jerk response my brother’s teasing had on me. But if the in-text references and jokes (the chapter-titles refer to Socrates’ ‘Apology’, the essays of Montaigne, Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing et cetera) at times feel – as my mother would say – a little too clever for its own good, this smugness is punctured by the novel’s lively and self-deprecating humour. As a final note, great credit is due to the translator Miranda France, who has beautiful managed to retain in English the distinguishing nuances between each narrator’s register and style of expression.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Colin Herd lives and writes in Edinburgh. Poems have recently appeared in Shampoo, Streetcake, Velvet Mafia, Gutter and forthcoming in Pop Serial, and reviews in the blog of Chroma journal.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, September 7th, 2010.